Under the blazing sun of southern India, agronomist Lanka Venkateshwarao casts a practiced eye on the small fields around Kondapur, a dusty collection of sturdy stone-roofed houses and thatched cowsheds. Traditionally, the villagers of Kondapur, 60 miles west of Hyderabad, have scratched out a living by growing chickpeas, peanuts, and a few vegetables, as well as the spice turmeric. But this year, a handful of farmers are planting a portion of their fields with a different crop--cucumbers. Venkateshwarao's employer, VST Natural Products Ltd., promises to buy their output, which will be used to make kosher pickles for markets in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Midway through the one-month harvest season, Venkateshwarao wanders through the fields, examining plants and dispensing advice. "These leaves are too light," he says, kneeling on the ground beside Venkatamma, a tiny, weathered farm woman. "They should be a darker green." He tells her to apply fertilizer to her half-acre of cucumbers. In the next field, Venkateshwarao directs another laborer to put her picked cucumbers under a tree, instead of leaving them under the sun. Then he gently chastises Sanga Reddy (most people in this region of India take their surname from the Reddy caste), who is walking barefoot through his field, spraying pesticide from a spray-pack on his back. "You're not supposed to spray at this time of day," Venkateshwarao tells him.
For the farmers of Kondapur, many of them illiterate, such advice from an outsider is unprecedented. The government doesn't teach them cultivating techniques. Nor does it help them with stubborn pests or crop diseases. Instead, it leaves the people at the mercy of pesticide dealers, who have been known to dish out adulterated, poor-quality chemicals at inflated prices. The farmers say they have other problems, too--from wild price fluctuations to exploitative middlemen. So even with good rain and a bountiful harvest, the villagers in this region often reap meager returns. "With turmeric, if I get a bumper crop, the rate is low. If the price is high, I usually have only one crate," gripes Ram Chandra Reddy, a tall young farmer from nearby Nagaram. "How can we develop like this?"
The results of this bitter cycle are plain to see. Farmers own little more than the land, their animals, and the clothes on their backs. In Kondapur, a village of 3,000, there are just two black-and-white television sets and no motorized vehicles, not even a simple scooter. To pay for his daughter's wedding, gray-bearded Papi Reddy had to borrow nearly $1,200 from moneylenders at 36% annual interest--a debt that will take years to repay.
DIRE DEEDS. Debt, in fact, is driving some residents of villages not far from Kondapur to dire deeds. Many were ruined after they borrowed heavily to plant cotton, a popular cash crop that promised fabulous returns. But oversupply sent prices crashing, and the farmers ended up with heavy losses. Unable to deal with the crushing debt, 170 farmers in southern India have committed suicide in recent months.
Pickles--whether sweet, sour, kosher, or dill--hardly seem like something with the power to alter lives. But VST Natural Products, a fledgling company in Hyderabad, believes that it can make a difference. In 1996, VST Natural Products, a subsidiary of Indian tobacco company VST Industries Ltd., constructed a $15 million plant outside Hyderabad to produce pickles, ground paprika, and other processed foods. It is working closely with more than 12,000 owners of small farms in the districts around the factory, to teach them to grow cucumbers for processing.
"It's like a marriage," says VST project manager Adoni Ramachandran. "Both have to be satisfied, otherwise it's not a healthy marriage." Many here believe ties between food-processing industries and farmers are the best hope of boosting productivity on the small family farms, as well as ending the farmers' dependence on middlemen.
It's an intensive effort. Some 60 VST field workers travel the dusty roads between villages, visiting farmers almost daily. "Right from day one, from the sowing up to the marketing, we are with them," says Ramachandran. VST Workers help the farmers select their most suitable land for cucumbers. Then they monitor the crop, checking for early signs of disease, pest, and stress. At harvest, the farmers are taught the proper sizes to pick for tiny gherkins, round slices, or sliced "sandwich stackers," as VST calls them.
Besides technical support, VST provides seeds and top-quality pesticides for the crop--on credit and interest-free. Most important, VST promises to purchase the cucumbers at a price fixed before each growing season. "We bring an assured buyback at a price with a reasonable return," says Chief Executive Vijay Kumar. "It may not be the sky, but at least it's assured."
A farmer who invests $250 in an acre of cucumbers can gross $500 in the two months between planting and harvest and do it several times a year, VST officials claim. This may not be as much as cotton earned in the good years gone by, but it's far better than the $200 per acre loss that some cotton farmers suffered this year.
While the 12,000 farmers under contract to VST have experimented with only small patches of ground, they have been paid well over $1 million during the past year. That's no paltry sum in the cash-poor rural Indian communities. Kondapur farmer Pratap Reddy knows what to do with the $500 that he earned growing cucumbers (and a small amount of paprika) this year: He will use the money to help with his son's expenses at an engineering college. VST expects to increase the acreage under contract next year and pay out $2.3 million.
YOUNG VICTIMS. That could allow residents of villages such as Somaram, which was hard hit by the cotton failure, to remain at home. At least 20 villagers have left for Hyderabad and other cities, hoping to find jobs as construction workers to pay off rapacious lenders. Many want to sell off parcels of their already tiny land holdings, but they can't find buyers. K. Uppalaiah, a mournful man who planted his two acres in cotton and chickpeas last year, has sent his sons, 10 and 8, to join road-building crews. He hopes they'll earn money to help settle his debts. "They are at such a young age--and still, I had to send them," he says. "If they had stayed with me, I am not in a position to feed them."
Uppalaiah is too far from the plant near Hyderabad to grow cucumbers, since they could easily wilt during the long, hot drive to the factory. But he hopes to join the growing number of farmers who are beginning to raise paprika for VST. One of them is K. Tirumal Reddy, who owns 15 acres, a large farm by Indian standards. Last year, he planted eight acres in cotton and lost $1,645, after the bolls were destroyed by pests. But the two-acre plot of gleaming red paprika that Reddy planted under the supervision of a VST field worker should earn him close to $2,000. "This is the only crop that succeeded," he says.
Narsi Reddy, 50, who lives in the village of Medikuntapalli, also pins his hopes on cucumbers and paprika. He's under contract with VST to grow both of the new crops. After a lifetime of toil on 10 acres that he inherited from his father, Reddy hadn't earned enough even to buy a motor scooter. In years past, he simply guessed what to plant, based on reports of what crops had fetched high prices the year before. Since others did the same, Reddy often found he was adding to a glut.
This year, however, despite drought and pests, Reddy has already earned more than $100 from cucumbers and paprika. These crops, he says, are his best chance of paying off nearly $1,000 in loans. "All the farmers are in the same boat," he says. "Without the buyback program, I see little hope."
Reddy and many other cucumber farmers have never tasted a pickle--never even seen one, in fact. So several growers gather around with great curiosity when a jar of VST pickle spears is opened. Each one gingerly sticks his fingers in the jar and pulls out a pickle, all the while telling others, "This is what they do with our cucumbers."
They turn the pickles over in their weathered hands, smell them, and cautiously, one after another, take small bites. Their faces wrinkle, and their eyes widen in surprise, perhaps mild dislike. Yet not one misses a beat. "Very good," one farmer says. "They are really very good." Eyes closed, he takes another bite.